Wild at Heart
The Louisiana landscape is an irresistible story. Its shadowy bayous and sugarcane fields are mood-setting backdrops for novelists, photographers and artists who sit for hours with palettes, paints and canvases to capture those moments when warm sunlight haloes over and fills the land.
Laura Soullière Gates of Alexandria is one of those artists. The land and dramatic cloudscapes are ever present in her work whether she is painting a tree-lined pond in Louisiana’s Kisatchie National Forest, smoke rising from distant petrochemical plants along the Mississippi River in North Baton Rouge, or a blackened thunderstorm approaching a luminous flowering meadow in Avoyelles Parish.
“The land. Our earth. The sky. The wild. I love open space,” Gates says. “I love places that are undeveloped where the nights get so dark that the Milky Way envelopes you in something that feels like infinity. Where all you hear is the crunch of dried leaves under your boots. Where a stripe of pale yellow defines the edge of the earth and the beginning of the sky. Or watch the clouds as a storm builds. Sometimes it’s the light at a certain time of day. Or it could be landforms, or what humans have done to shape the land.”
Gates, after a long career as an architectural historian and ranger in the National Park Service, spent much of her adult life working in some of the most beautiful places in the American West, places that inspired her to paint. On days off, she painted in makeshift studios or on location out in the wilderness. Then in 1998, while stationed at the Arkansas Post National Memorial, she got her dream job as superintendent of the Cane River Creole National Historical Park near Natchitoches. In December 2015 Gates retired. A month later she began her new career as a full-time artist in her new studio at the River Oaks Square Arts Center in Alexandria, where she has traveled deeper into the Louisiana landscape.
“Painting the Louisiana landscape is very different,” she says, comparing the dramatic mountainous vistas of the West to Louisiana. “The landscape here has subtleties of shape and light, and enormous variety. Start at the coast, pass through the flat marshes and swamps, up to the prairies, then the piney woods, and think of the things you see. It’s a softer but very complex landscape. Some places are so flat that the land and water seem to disappear as the sky and clouds become the dominant features of the landscape. It is challenging to translate its beauty and subtlety and feeling into canvas and paint.”
Gates’ travels in Louisiana are the latest in a long journey that has taken her from Schenectady, New York, where she was born, to cities and town across the country, and now Alexandria. Her father was an Air Force officer, which meant they moved a good bit. Although Louisiana is now home, she says her roots are in Worcester, Massachusetts, where both her parents were born and where she spent her childhood.
“Living in different places,” she says, “helped me maintain a broad intellectual curiosity and enormous respect for the cultures connected to the places where I’ve lived and worked. My parents also took us to national parks up and down the east coast. When we lived in Arlington, Virginia, for instance, we frequently went to the Smithsonian, the National Gallery, the Phillips Collection and so many more wondrous places of great science, art, history and thought.”
Art has been part of Gates’ life since childhood and her first art lessons were in the 7th grade. Later at the University of Massachusetts she received her bachelor of fine arts and her master’s degrees in art and architectural history – degrees that served her well when she joined the National Park Service in 1975. Through it all, painting has been a constant.
“It’s a compulsion,” she says, “a means of expression, a chance to put form and color to my thoughts and reactions. I have a passion for the subject matter, for the materials, for the tools, for the extraordinary color, for my connection to places.”
Gates explores that passion in her studio and outdoors in the natural landscape. In the studio, she paints from photographs that she takes as reference notes. She crops them, marks them up and sketches a concept before launching into the final painting. Though she paints mostly in her studio, she says painting outdoors on location is “exhilarating, frustrating, hard and great fun.” To Gates painting outdoors essentially is about capturing the “quality of light.”
“In summer, the light might be hazy, and your skin will feel damp with the humidity,” she says, describing how the natural light varies in Louisiana with each season. “My favorite light is the late afternoon light in January and February, when the sun gets so low on the horizon and the deep shadows of trees and farm buildings stretch far across the land, and the cold goes deep in your bones.”
Painting on location does present challenges, however. She describes one adventure crossing the Mississippi River near Baton Rouge.
“One morning,” she says, “I was going to Baton Rouge and taking the old U.S. 190 Bridge across the Mississippi. The light was brilliant bouncing off the river and silhouetting the refineries along the river’s edge. Luckily I wasn’t driving, so I asked my friend so ease up on the gas a bit, and I rolled down the window and started clicking photo after photo. I used those 20 or so photos to capture the light, the essence of the place, and the feeling that I gathered up and painted. Let’s face it. No one in her right mind would set up an easel and paint on the U.S. 190 Bridge.”
Whether Gates is crossing the Mississippi or simply driving along the back roads of Louisiana among flowering meadows, tilled fields or wooded glens, her eyes are constantly searching for that scene and moment that will find its way into her next painting.
For more information about Gates, visit lauragatesart.com.
EVENTS & EXHIBITIONS
Through Jan. 12
R. W. Norton Art Gallery. “The Pelican State Goes to War: Louisiana in World War II.” Louisiana’s preparedness for WW II and changes the war brought to the state. rwnaf.org
Through Jan. 13
The Louisiana Art & Science Museum. “Lin Emery: A Force of Nature.” Explores the work of the internationally acclaimed kinetic sculptor Lin Emery. lasm.org
Through Jan. 18
Paul and Lulu Hilliard University Art Museum. “Salvador Dali’s Stairway to Heaven.” Inaugural show, featuring 140 works by the famed artist Salvador Dali. hilliardmuseum.org
Through Jan. 27
New Orleans Museum of Art. “The Orleans Collection.” A Tricentennial event, the exhibition features masterpieces from the art collection of Philippe II, Duc d’Orléans. noma.org
Through Feb. 9
Historic City Hall Arts & Cultural Center. “Nature, Tradition & Innovation.” Exhibition celebrates more than 40 contemporary Japanese ceramists who are inspired by the natural world. cityoflakecharles.com/department/division.php?fDD=3-29
Through Feb. 9
Masur Museum. “Richard Buswell: Close to Home.” Exhibition features Buswell’s photographs of Western settlements, ghost towns and frontier homesteads.masurmuseum.org
Through Feb. 10
LSU Museum of Art. “George Rodrigue: The Cajun Landscape.” Features early landscapes and paintings by Louisiana artist George Rodrigue. lsumoa.org
Through Feb. 16
Alexandria Museum of Art. “Hari & Deepti: Light by the Forest.” Husband and wife artists Hari and Deepti create intricate cut paper light boxes that delve into fairytales and other stories. This exhibition will transform the museum into a cut paper wonderland, including an installation piece that allows visitors to interact with the creation. themuseum.org
Jan. 13 – Feb. 23
Artspace. Several Northwest Louisiana artists partner to paint large-scale artworks directly onto the walls of artspace in a fusion of different styles. artspace-shreveport.com
Feb. 6 – Feb. 28
Southern University Museum of Art. “Annual Black History Month Exhibit.” Exhibition dedicated to the celebration of Black History month. sumashreveport.org
Through March 10
Ogden Museum of Southern Art. “New Southern Photography.” Exhibition features photography practiced in today’s American South. ogdenmuseum.org
Jan. 17 – March 29
Meadows Museum of Art at Centenary College. “Global Contamination : A Gulf Project.” Artist Joan Hall creates sculpture from plastics collected from the Gulf of Mexico. Also, “Louisiana Landscapes.” Features artists’ renditions of Northwest Louisiana landscapes. themeadowsmuseum.com